New York City has disbanded a special police unit that conducted surveillance on local Muslims and their meeting places, officials announced Tuesday — but some Muslim community organizers said this will not end violations of their civil rights.
The announcement by the New York Police Department (NYPD) and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office comes as part of a larger shift from the policies of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, under whose administration the Demographics Unit — also known as the Zone Assessment Unit — conducted surveillance on Muslim mosques, schools and other gathering spots.
“Our administration has promised the people of New York a police force that keeps our city safe, but that is also respectful and fair,” de Blasio said in a news release.
“This reform is a critical step forward in easing tensions between the police and the communities they serve, so that our cops and our citizens can help one another go after the real bad guys,” said the mayor, who took office in January.
According to the NYPD, the unit has been “largely inactive” since the beginning of this year.
“Understanding certain local demographics can be a useful factor when assessing information regarding potential threats coming to the attention of the New York City Police Department,” the department said in a statement.
However, it added, “it has been determined that much of the same information previously gathered by the Zone Assessment Unit may be obtained through direct outreach by the NYPD to the communities concerned.”
The department will now also rely on publicly available information to figure out what is happening in Muslim communities, a tactic also used by the FBI, The New York Times reported. Citing legal concerns, the FBI had refused to use information gained by covert NYPD tactics.
De Blasio and Police Chief Bill Bratton have tried to ease distrust between authorities and communities that have accused the NYPD of misconduct — practices such as “stop and frisk,” the controversial on-the-street checks that critics say unfairly target African-American and Hispanic youths.
“It’s a new administration, and they are willing to sit with the community and listen to their concerns,” the Times quoted Ahmad Jaber, president of the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY), as saying.
Jaber had served on the NYPD Muslim advisory board until resigning last year in protest over the department’s tactic of spying on mosques. He told Al Jazeera then that he felt “stabbed in the back” by the NYPD.
But Tuesday’s announcement has not eased the concerns of some community leaders.
“The closing of the Zone Assessment Unit does not indicate that the NYPD has abandoned discriminatory surveillance practices that target Muslims. While we welcome this, it's only one unit and one concern the community had of many,” Linda Sarsour, executive director of AAANY, wrote in an email to Al Jazeera.
“We hope to see more meaningful changes within the NYPD,” she said.
Fahd Ahmed, legal and policy director of the South Asian Organizing Center, warned against overstating the significance of the unit being disbanded.
“This is a symbolic step, but should not be confused for victory,” Ahmed told Al Jazeera in an email. “There are many unanswered questions about whether the already collected data will continue to be used, and whether profiling practices will continue in other forms.”
The surveillance program, launched in 2003, had sent undercover NYPD officers into places where many of the city’s Muslims gather — shops, cafés and mosques — to get a feel for political thought and watch for any potential plots to commit violence. The NYPD’s activities also extended to Muslims in New Jersey.
Authorities have acknowledged that the program never led to criminal charges, according to the Times, which broke the story about the unit being disbanded. Nevertheless, former New York Police Chief Ray Kelly defended the program under his watch as top cop in former Mayor Bloomberg’s administration.
In Washington, 34 members of Congress had demanded a federal investigation into the NYPD's actions. Attorney General Eric Holder said he was disturbed by reports about the operations, and the Department of Justice said it was reviewing complaints received from Muslims and their supporters.
The Demographics Unit had initially been a covert part of the NYPD, until a Pulitzer Prize–winning report by The Associated Press in 2011 revealed the operation, sparking outcry from New York Muslims and civil liberties advocates.
Also of concern to AAANY's Sarsour are so-called Terrorism Enterprise Investigations, a police investigation program that she said treats entire mosques with suspicion, allowing surveillance of places of worship in ways that activists say violate civil liberties.
Sarsour said these investigations are separate from the Demographics Unit program.
“We continue to be concerned with Terrorism Enterprise Investigations and labeling entire mosques in that matter. The standards used by NYPD to conduct terrorism investigations (their standards … are way too low and must be raised to reasonable suspicion — not the case now),” Sarsour wrote in her email.
She added that community outreach programs conducted by the police have “acted as intelligence-gathering instead of building meaningful relationships.”
Ahmed at the SAOC credited the hard work of community organizations to bring about this move by City Hall — and said activists still have a long way to go in their quest for justice.
“Many other communities of color have been fighting for police accountability for decades, if not longer,” he told Al Jazeera. “Our communities are just beginning to join in that struggle, and still learning how to fight and win changes.”